Christ Prayed For The Unity Of Believers
By Theodore H. Epp
In His prayer recorded in John 17, the Lord prayed for the believers in every age. He had been praying specifically for His disciples, and then He said, "Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on Me through their word" (v. 20).
Today the Lord Jesus Christ is at the right hand of the Father, interceding for the believers on earth. Since the Day of Pentecost, those who have received Christ as Saviour have become members of His Body, which is the true Church. God the Father "put all things under His [Christ’s] feet, and gave Him to be the head over all things to the church" (Eph. 1:22). The word "church" in this passage does not refer to a local church or to a church building but to believers who are members of His Body.
Although the prayer in John 17 was made before the Church came into existence, Christ was prophetically praying for the believers of the Church Age unto the very end of the age. Observe particularly the burden of the Lord as He prayed for those who would come to know Him in the future age. He prayed, "That they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us: that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me" (v.21).
It is important to remember that Christ’s words about the unity of the Church were not a command but a prayer. His words have been frequently misinterpreted and, as a result, they have been frequently misapplied and misunderstood. Today there is an emphasis on organizational unity among church groups that seeks to find its basis in the words of Christ recorded in John 17. Therefore it is exceedingly important that we understand what Christ really intended by the words He addressed to His Heavenly Father.
In John 17 Christ was praying that the believers might have unity, and in Ephesians 4 believers are exhorted to "keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (v. 3). If we are to be faithful in keeping a unity, it is essential that we know what unity is intended.
Because Christ was going to leave His disciples after His mission on the cross, He prayed for them and for those who would believe through them: "And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to Thee. Holy Father, keep through Thine own name those whom Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, as We are. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on Me through their word" (John 17:11,20).
He was praying for the disciples and for those who would carry on His work through the coming age. For this work there needed to be unity among all believers.
Just two chapters earlier in the Gospel of John, there is also an important emphasis on unity. The Apostle John recorded the words of Christ who said, "I am the true vine, and My Father is the husbandman. Every branch in Me that beareth not fruit He taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, He purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in Me.
"I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in Me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without Me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in Me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you" (15:1-7).
It is this kind of unity that Christ was praying for in John 17. He expressed two main desires. First, He desired that the disciples--those living at that time, as well as believers who would be living later--would all be one. The purpose of this unity was "that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me" (v. 21). Let us never forget that Christ’s burden for this present age was that we might be one so that the world might believe that He had been sent by God.
Christ’s second main desire is recorded in John 17:23: "I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that Thou hast sent Me, and hast loved them, as Thou hast loved Me." Christ desired that believers might be perfected in their unity. Although the process takes place here on earth, the ultimate perfection will be accomplished only when we are present with Him.
The Nature of the Unity
Notice again the words of Christ recorded in John 17:21: "That they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee..." A key word in Christ’s request is the word "as." Christ wanted believers to be one as--in the same way --He and the Father were one.
The unity which the Father and the Son have is not a physical unity. Although Jesus Christ now has a glorified body in heaven, the Father does not have a body. Therefore, the oneness cannot be a physical oneness. It is evident, then, that the unity to which Christ was referring is not a unity that is visible to the eye.
The unity of the Father and the Son is a spiritual unity. And it is this unity that serves as a pattern for believers’ unity.
The spiritual unity of the Father and the Son, of course, has many features. One of these is that they have a unity of thought. Their unity of thought is beyond our comprehension because there is nothing in human nature that is comparable to it. Although the Father and the Son are two distinct Persons, their thinking is identical. The thinking of the Father is always the thinking of the Son, and the thinking of the Son is always the thinking of the Father.
Although this kind of relationship is far above all human experience, it can be illustrated by the way the Lord lays the same burden on more than one person. For instance, when the Lord first called Mrs. Epp and me to begin the Back to the Bible Broadcast, we agreed that there would be no major decisions made without both of us being in agreement. As different matters arose, we discussed them to find out whether we were both thinking the same about the Lord’s will. We were convinced that if something was of the Lord, He would not only speak to my heart but also to her heart. Thus there was unity of thought about the Lord’s will.
Unity of thought is to be experienced by all believers. It is the ministry of the Holy Spirit to bring these thoughts to our minds and to give us assurance of the will of God.
Other features of the spiritual unity between the Father and the Son are those of purpose, will, and ministry of service. As the thinking of One has always been the thinking of the Other, so there has been harmony in all other areas. Their purpose has always been the same. Their wills have never clashed. Their work or work plan has always been the same. Thus the Father and the Son have unity of thought, purpose, will, and ministry of service.
It is this kind of unity that Christ prayed for concerning believers. When a person receives Jesus Christ as his Saviour, he has the Son (1 John 5:12). Because every person who believes has the Son of God, there is a unity among all believers. It is the special ministry of the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus Christ to believers so that this unity might become an ever-deepening thing.
An Accomplished Fact
It is important to realize that this unity is an accomplished fact for believers. It is a unity that comes by spiritual birth. Therefore, believers have this unity in Christ, and their responsibility is to give it free course in their lives.
When I experienced a spiritual birth by receiving Christ as my Saviour, I received His life. If you have received Him as your Saviour, you also have experienced a spiritual birth and have received His life of righteousness. Therefore, we have the same life within us--the same source of life. Nothing less than the new birth, or being born from above, can bring men and women into living union with Christ and the Father, or with each other. Organizational unity can never, in itself, produce this spiritual unity. Spiritual unity is obtained only by receiving Jesus Christ as Saviour. Only by the communication of this divine life can there be a realization of the unity Christ spoke about in John 17.
The spiritual unity of believers is emphasized in 1 Corinthians 12:12,13: "For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit."
Unity, therefore is a matter of the essential spirit-life as revealed in the unity between the Father and the Son. This unity can never be brought about by organizational mergers but only by receiving Jesus Christ as personal Saviour. Once we understand the kind of unity that Christ was referring to, we will not be nearly as concerned about organizational unity as we are about spiritual unity.
Variety in Unity
It is important to know that the unity Christ was speaking of does not mean sameness. There is a great variety in the unity to which Christ was referring. He compared the unity of believers with the indescribable unity that exists in the Godhead. One of the first articles of our faith is that the Lord our God is one God: one in essence, one in purpose, and one in action. The Son does nothing of Himself, the Father does nothing apart from the Son; and the Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father and from the Son. Although it is impossible to understand the mystery of the Godhead, we reverently accept it by faith as God has revealed it.
Though God is one, there is a variety of functions within the Trinity. For instance, the Father decrees, and the Son executes what the Father decrees. The Father sends, and the Son is the One who is sent. All the members of the Trinity were active in the creation. Genesis 1:1 says, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." In the original language, the word "God" in this verse is in its plural form, implying all three members of the Trinity.
The entire Godhead is also active in redemption. The Father gave the Son, the Son died for the sin of the world, and the Holy Spirit regenerates all who believe in Christ. In this we see that there is a variety in unity.
The variety that exists among believers who are thus united is clearly set forth in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11: "Men have different gifts, but it is the same Spirit who gives them. There are different ways of serving God, but it is the same Lord who is served. God works through different men in different ways, but it is the same God who achieves His purposes through them all. Each man is given his gift by the Spirit that he may use it for the common good.
"One man’s gift by the Spirit is to speak with wisdom, another’s to speak with knowledge. The same Spirit gives to another man faith, to another the ability to heal, to another the power to do great deeds. The same Spirit gives to another man the gift of preaching the word of God, to another the ability to discriminate in spiritual matters, to another speech in different tongues and to yet another the power to interpret the tongues. Behind all these gifts is the operation of the same Spirit, who distributes to each individual man, as He wills" (Phillips).
Although there is a great variety of gifts given to different men, behind all the gifts is the operation of the same Spirit, who distributes the gifts according to His desires. But we must never forget that there is a great variety in the spiritual unity of believers.
Believers are spoken of as living stones: "Ye also, as lively [living] stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5). As living stones, believers are of all different forms with different functions, but they are all united in the one true building.
Building terminology is also applied to believers in Ephesians 2:20-22: "And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit." Also, Ephesians 4:16 says, "From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love."
These verses emphasize that though we believers have great variety, all of us together make up one body, or one building. Unity in the true Church requires that a great variety of things be combined to form one structure to bring glory to Jesus Christ.
When Christ spoke of unity, He did not imply that all His disciples should be exactly the same. They represented a great variety in temperament, character, mind, leadership and performance. However, this great variety was to operate harmoniously as one body, or to be fitly framed together as one building. In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul was inspired to write at length about how believers are members of a single body and that only as each carries out his function can the body operate as it should. The true unity of believers is manifested in a variety of ways.
Consider the variety in the unity of the Bible itself. God inspired over 40 different authors to write the 66 books, and though there was a variety of authorship, a variety of style, and many centuries over which it was written, it is one Book with a central theme and without contradictions in its statements.
Even among the various denominational groups today, it is obvious that there is a great variety, because each is distinct in some way. But if we are born of God--born from above--we are united into one, not because we belong to a particular denomination or because we unite but because we are part of the Body of Christ, which is the true Church. There are many folds, but one flock; many regiments, but one army; many stones, but one building.
The criterion, therefore, is not what denomination you belong to but whether you have received Jesus Christ as your Saviour. When you are born from above, you become united with every other person who has been born from above. Believers are members of the Body of Christ and, of course, He is the Head of that Body (Eph. 1:22). When we receive Christ as Saviour, we all receive the same life--His life. Therefore, we have a spiritual unity regardless of the particular denomination to which we may belong. The important thing for us to see is that the basic doctrine must be centered around Christ’s finished work at Calvary. Only in this way can we effectively carry out the spiritual unity which we have in Christ. Merging denominations does not produce a Christ centered spiritual unity--only receiving Him as Saviour does this.
– Reprinted by permission of Herbert Epp. All rights reserved.